I want to begin my Christmas 2020 reflection with the first four stanzas of the poem Esperanza by Alexis Valdés, a Cuban-American poet based in Miami, Florida.
When the storm passes
and the roads are tamed,
and we are the survivors
of a collective shipwreck.
With a weeping heart
and a blessed destiny
we will feel happy
just for being alive.
And we will hug
the first stranger
and praise the luck
of not having lost a friend.
And then we’ll remember
everything we lost
And all at once we will learn
all we had not learned before.
These verses appear in the latest book attributed to Pope Francis, Let us Dream: The Path to A Better Future. The book is a based on Pope Francis’s conversations with the British journalist Austen Ivereigh, who has written two books about the pope, and has been a prominent commentator on his papacy. Let Us Dream includes Pope Francis’s thoughts on the coronavirus pandemic and the way in which it has impacted the world and human lives. The book reiterates many of the points that Pope Francis makes in his latest encyclical, Fratelli Tutti.
Perhaps many of you remember seeing the very poignant picture of Pope Francis holding up the monstrance and giving a blessing in a deserted St. Peter’s square. As is typical of Pope Francis, when the coronavirus began to take its toll, he turned his attention towards the most vulnerable people: those isolated in their homes, those stuck in nursing homes, the poor left without sustenance, the helpless migrants, and the elderly, many of them who died alone. More significantly, the pain, the fear, and the loneliness of others reminded Pope Francis of his own experience of a respiratory illness that almost killed him when he was 21 years old. At the time, he was only in the second year of formation as a Jesuit scholastic. He underwent surgery to remove the upper right lobe of one of his lungs, and he found himself on a ventilator fighting for life. He had to be isolated during this time and he experienced months of loneliness, fear, and pain. He recalls how one day he hugged his mother and asked, “Just tell me if I’m going to die.” This experience, which he calls the first of his three personal “Covids,” (39) was a life-changing experience.
Let us Dream revolves around hope—a hope that emerges when human beings recognize the underlying problems and issues that lead to crises and tragedies like the pandemic, and inspires them to set out to create a better future. At its core, this is the Christmas story, is it not? God sent his Son, Jesus, into a tragic, broken, sinful, and loveless world to embrace it and create a better future.
This “pandemic Christmas,” I can find no better reflection for today than Pope Francis’s message in Let us Dream. The book has three chapters: “A Time to See,” “A Time to Choose,” and “A Time to Act.” Each of these themes speaks to our celebration of the birth of our Savior during this challenging and unprecedented time.
A Time to See
Pope Francis begins this chapter by contrasting how we might see the world from the way in which God sees the world. Many of us tend to view the world from center stage, from the perspective of the rich, the powerful, and or from a populist worldview. But Pope Francis says, “You have to go to the edges of existence if you want to see the world as it is… You have to make for the margins to find a new future. When God wanted to regenerate creation, He chose to go to the margins—to places of sin and misery, of exclusion and suffering, of illness and solitude—because they were also places full of possibilities” (11). With these words, Pope invites us to see the world as God sees it: from the peripheries.
From the peripheries, the world looks different. Here we experience discrimination, inequality, violence, suffering, misery, and injustice. As we view the world from the periphery, Pope Francis says, we can either come to grips with it or try to escape reality. He lays out three ways in we often attempt to escape reality: narcissism, discouragement, and pessimism. We can also give in to what Pope Francis calls “existential myopia,” which he defines as, “holding on to something we’re afraid to let go.” Pope Francis contrasts this with God’s involvement in human history. “God is never indifferent,” Pope Francis says, but instead, “the essence of God is mercy, which is not just seeing and being moved, but responding. God knows, feels, and comes running out to look for us!” (19). This precisely is the Christmas story, is it not?
Christmas reveals a God of the peripheries. Jesus was born on the periphery, his family had to flee to the peripheries, he was baptized on the periphery, he ministered on the periphery, he ate and drank with people on the periphery, and he was put to death on the periphery. It’s the story that changed the course of human history. God is never indifferent, but rather gets involved in human history. Likewise, Pope Francis invites us not to be indifferent, but, like God, to see and be moved, to know and to feel, and to act from and at the peripheries—the place of possibilities. This is the path to a better future.
A Time to Choose
The Christmas story in replete with choices. God chose Mary. Mary chose God. Joseph chose to take Mary as his wife. God chose to send Jesus. Jesus chose to become the Word made flesh. Pope Francis suggests that between the first step, “A Time to See” and the final step, “A Time to Act,” there is a middle step—“A Time to Choose.” Pope Francis suggests a robust set of criteria to guide us in this second step. These criteria include knowing that we are loved by God; knowing that we are called by God to be a people in service and solidarity; and having a healthy capacity for silent reflection. “Most of all,” he says, “we need prayer and the capacity to hear the promptings of the Spirit and cultivate dialogue in the community that can hold us and allow us to dream” (51).
Pope Francis spends much of this book decrying what ails our society, and the list of societal ills is long. It is impossible to deal with all of them in this Christmas reflection. But this time of challenges, Pope Francis says, is also the precise moment that humanity must choose a different future. And for this, he says, we need to choose fraternity over individualism. By this he means that we need to have a sense of belonging to each other and to the whole of humanity, “to come together and work together against a shared horizon of possibility” (68). The one who opens this possibility is the little child we welcome in our midst as the Savior of the world. He is the Savior of the world and not just of one nation, or one race, or one group of people.
The Christmas miracle is a global event! And now, another miracle—another possibility—lies open before us. If there is anything that the pandemic has taught us it is this: that we are all in this together. If humanity is to recover, it will only be if we come together. Similarly, salvation is God’s global endeavor. This is the moment to set aside individualism, narcissism, discouragement, pessimism, and existential myopia. This is the moment to choose to work together for a better future. The Christmas event demands this of us.
A Time to Act
Pope Francis begins his third chapter with the words, “In times of crisis and tribulation, when we are shaken our of our sclerotic habits, the love of God comes out to purify us, to remind us that we are a people.” Christmas tells us that God’s love is action! The birth of Christ is an act that makes us a people; an act that gives the human race its dignity. The Christmas miracle is a celebration of the love of God that embraces us, purifies us, and makes us a people.
Pope Francis’s reflection on “the people” is truly a fabulous section in the book. The crux of this chapter is that Pope Francis invites us to assign every human person and people the dignity that is theirs. He points out the 30-40 million unborn lives set aside each year (115). He also points out the still-existent slavery in our world, the death penalty, and the rampant exploitation of men, women, and children, sacrificed at the altar of power, pleasure, and profit (114). The core problem Pope Francis points out is the fact that we refuse to embrace the dignity that God gives every human person.
Recognizing the dignity of every human person is all-critical. While we believe that we have human dignity because we are created in the image and likeness of God, at Christmas, the reality that God became human adds immensely to that original dignity. And especially because Christ came among us as a baby, as one for whom there was no room—a humble, poor, and weak child stripped of fame, glory, and majesty—we cannot compromise the dignity of any human being, especially the most vulnerable and on those on the peripheries.
The better future that Pope Francis envisions will be impossible unless every human person is treated with the dignity that Christ gave humanity when he took on human flesh. We must begin to act in this way. If we do not, not only will our Christmas celebration be empty and superficial, but we will completely miss Christ. After all, Christ is the God of the peripheries.
In conclusion, these are the final stanzas of Alexis Valdés’ Esperanza. In this poet’s vision for a post-pandemic future, where the dignity of every human person is cherished, this is what we will have learned:
We will understand how fragile
it means to be alive.
We will sweat empathy
for who is and who has left.
We will miss the old man
asking for a dollar in the market
we didn’t know his name
although he was next to us
And perhaps the poor old man
was your God in disguise.
You never asked for his name
because you were in a hurry.
And everything will be a miracle
And everything will be legacy.
And life will be respected,
the life we have won.
When the storm passes
I ask God, full of sadness
to return us to be better
as he had dreamed we would be.
Image: Adobe Stock. By ipopba.
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Fr. Satish Joseph was ordained in India in 1994 and incardinated into the archdiocese of Cincinnati in 2008. He has a Masters in Communication and Doctorate in Theology from the University of Dayton. He is presently Pastor at Immaculate Conception and St. Helen parishes in Dayton, OH. He is also the founder Ite Missa Est ministries (www.itemissaest.org) and uses social media extensively for evangelization. He is also the founder of MercyPets (www.mercypets.org) — a charitable fund that invites pet-owners to donate a percent of their pet expenses to alleviate child hunger. MercyPets is active in four countries since its founding in December 2017. Apart from serving at the two parishes, he facilitates retreats, seminars and parish missions.